Trump’s trial begins, senators vowing ‘impartial justice’

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate opened the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump with quiet ceremony Thursday — senators standing at their desks to swear an oath of “impartial justice” as jurors, House prosecutors formally reciting the charges and Chief Justice John Roberts presiding.

The trial, only the third such undertaking in American history, is unfolding at the start of the election year, a time of deep political division in the nation. Four of the senators sitting in judgment on Trump are running for the Democratic Party’s nomination to challenge him in the fall.

“Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye!” intoned the Senate’s sergeant at arms, calling the proceedings to order just past noon.

Senators filled the chamber, an unusual sight in itself, sitting silently under strict rules that prohibit talking or cellphones, for a trial that will test not only Trump’s presidency but also the nation’s three branches of power and its system of checks and balances.

The Constitution mandates the chief justice serve as the presiding officer, and Roberts made the short trip across the street from the Supreme Court to the Capitol. He has long insisted judges are not politicians and is expected to serve as a referee for the proceedings. Senators rose quickly when he appeared in his plain black robe.

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Watchdog: White House violated law in freezing Ukraine aid

WASHINGTON — The White House violated federal law in withholding security assistance to Ukraine, an action at the center of President Donald Trump’s impeachment, a federal watchdog agency said Thursday.

The Government Accountability Office said in a report that the Office of Management and Budget broke the law in holding up the aid, which Congress passed less than a year ago, saying “the President is not vested with the power to ignore or amend any such duly enacted law.”

The aid in question was held up last summer on orders from Trump but was released in September after Congress pushed for its release and a whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s July call with the Ukrainian leader became public.

The independent agency, which reports to Congress, said OMB violated the Impoundment Control Act by delaying the security assistance for “policy reasons,” rather than technical budgetary needs.

“Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law,” wrote the agency’s general counsel, Thomas Armstrong, in the report.

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Senate passes US-Canada-Mexico trade deal, a Trump priority

WASHINGTON — The Senate overwhelmingly approved a new North American trade agreement Thursday that rewrites the rules of trade with Canada and Mexico and gives President Donald Trump a major policy win before senators turn their full attention to his impeachment trial.

The vote was 89-10. The measure goes to Trump for his signature. It would replace the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA, which tore down most trade barriers and triggered a surge in trade. But Trump and other critics blamed that pact for encouraging U.S. companies to move their manufacturing plants south of the border to take advantage of low-wage Mexican laborers.

Passage of the trade bill, which has come to be called USMCA, came one day after Trump signed a new trade agreement with China, easing trade tensions between the economic powers.

“Quite a week of substantive accomplishments for the nation, for the president and for our international trade,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., shortly before the vote.

The final vote occurred just moments before Congress opened an impeachment trial, with House Democrats reading the formal charges from the well of the Senate. With the trial and an election year, Congress is not expected to pass many major bills. The trade bill gives lawmakers from both parties the chance to cite progress on an important economic issue before the November vote.

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FBI arrests 3 alleged white supremacists ahead of gun rally

GREENBELT, Md. — A former Canadian Armed Forces reservist and two other men who authorities say are linked to a violent white supremacist group were arrested Thursday, just days before they were believed to be headed to a pro-gun rally in Virginia’s capital.

The three men, members of The Base, were taken into custody on federal felony charges in Maryland and Delaware, the Justice Department said in a news release. One of the men had discussed traveling to Ukraine to fight alongside “nationalists” and compared the white supremacist group to al-Qaida, a prosecutor said during the defendants’ initial court hearing.

A criminal complaint charges Canadian national Patrik Jordan Mathews, 27, and Brian Mark Lemley Jr., 33, of Elkton, Maryland, with transporting a firearm and ammunition with intent to commit a felony. William Garfield Bilbrough IV, 19, of Denton, Maryland, is charged with “transporting and harboring aliens.”

The three men were believed to be planning to attend a pro-gun rally scheduled for Monday in Richmond, according to a law enforcement official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss an active investigation.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday declared a state of emergency and banned all types of weapons from the gun rally, citing reports that armed militia groups were planning to attend.

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Expert: Georgia election server showed signs of tampering

BOSTON — A computer security expert says he found that a forensic image of the election server central to a legal battle over the integrity of Georgia elections showed signs that the original server was hacked.

The server was left exposed to the open internet for at least six months, a problem the same expert discovered in August 2016. It was subsequently wiped clean in mid-2017 with no notice, just days after election integrity activists filed a lawsuit seeking an overhaul of what they called the state’s unreliable and negligently run election system.

In late December 2019, the plaintiffs were finally able to obtain a copy of the server’s contents that the FBI made in March 2017 and retained — after the state allegedly dragged its feet in securing the image.

State officials have said they’ve seen no evidence that any election-related data was compromised. But they also long refused to submit the server image for an independent examination.

Logan Lamb, a security expert for the plaintiffs, said in an affidavit filed in Atlanta federal court on Thursday that he found evidence suggesting the server was compromised in December 2014. Lamb said the evidence suggests an attacker exploited a bug that provided full control of the server.

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Andrew Yang’s wife details alleged sexual assault by OB-GYN

WASHINGTON — The wife of Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang says she was sexually assaulted by her OB-GYN while she was pregnant with the couple’s first child.

Evelyn Yang said in an interview televised Thursday by CNN that the assault happened in 2012, and she was initially afraid to tell anyone. She and 31 other women are now suing the doctor and hospital system, saying they conspired and enabled the crimes.

Yang said she she was encouraged to speak out after seeing the positive reception she and her husband had been getting on the campaign trail by being open about their son’s autism.

“Something about being on the trail and meeting people and seeing the difference that we’ve been making already has moved me to share my own story about it, about sexual assault,” she told CNN.

Yang said she first began seeing Dr. Robert Hadden in New York in early 2012. As the months went on, Yang said, Hadden began asking her inappropriate questions about her sexual activity, and he spent more time conducting examinations.

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Trump boosts school prayer, faith groups as he rallies base

In a bid to solidify his evangelical base, President Donald Trump on Thursday vowed to protect prayer in public schools and took new steps to give religious organizations easier access to federal programs.

Speaking at an Oval Office event and joined by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Trump unveiled the federal government’s first updated guidance on school prayer since 2003. It details scenarios in which school officials must permit prayer and clarifies the consequences if they don’t, but overall it makes few major changes to the guidance it replaces.

“We will not let anyone push God from the public square,” Trump said as he introduced the new rules. “We will uphold religious liberty for all.”

Hours before the event, nine Cabinet departments proposed separate rules intended to remove barriers for religious organizations participating in federal programs. Chief among the changes is the elimination of a rule requiring religious groups to refer clients to alternative organizations upon request.

The proposals follow through on an executive order Trump signed in 2018 aiming to put religious groups on equal footing when they compete for federal grants, contracts and other types of funding.

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AP visits immigration courts across US, finds nonstop chaos

LUMPKIN, Ga. — In a locked, guarded courtroom in a compound surrounded by razor wire, Immigration Judge Jerome Rothschild waits -- and stalls.

A Spanish interpreter is running late because of a flat tire. Rothschild tells the five immigrants before him that he’ll take a break before the proceedings even start. His hope: to delay just long enough so these immigrants won’t have to sit by, uncomprehendingly, as their futures are decided.

“We are, untypically, without an interpreter,” Rothschild tells a lawyer who enters the courtroom at the Stewart Detention Center after driving down from Atlanta, about 140 miles away.

In its disorder, this is, in fact, a typical day in the chaotic, crowded and confusing U.S. immigration court system of which Rothschild’s courtroom is just one small outpost.

Shrouded in secrecy, the immigration courts run by the U.S. Department of Justice have been dysfunctional for years and have only gotten worse. A surge in the arrival of asylum seekers and the Trump administration’s crackdown on the Southwest border and illegal immigration have pushed more people into deportation proceedings, swelling the court’s docket to 1 million cases.

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Starbucks, home of the $4 latte, is moving into poor areas

DETROIT — Starbucks has a point to prove: There’s more to the company than selling $4 lattes to rich people.

The Seattle-based coffee giant that has cultivated a reputation for being socially responsible said Thursday it is expanding its effort to put more coffee shops — and create more jobs — in poor neighborhoods.

Starbucks plans to open or remodel 85 stores by 2025 in rural and urban communities across the U.S. Each store will hire local staff, including construction crews and artists, and will have community event spaces. The company will also work with local United Way chapters to develop programs at each shop, such as youth job training classes and mentoring.

The effort will bring to 100 the number of “community stores” Starbucks has opened since it announced the program in 2015.

“All of these programs are with the intent of being purposeful and profitable,” said John Kelly, Starbucks executive vice president of public affairs and social impact.

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New Mets manager Beltrán out amid sign-stealing scandal

NEW YORK — Carlos Beltrán, called out on a curveball again.

So for the second time since they last threw a pitch, the New York Mets are in the market for a new manager.

Sign of the times.

Beltrán’s 2 1/2-month tenure as Mets manager ended Thursday before he spent a single game on the bench, the latest fallout from the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal that has rocked Major League Baseball.

The Mets announced the decision in a news release, saying Beltrán and the team “agreed to mutually part ways.” The move came two days after Boston cut ties with manager Alex Cora, who was Houston’s bench coach in 2017 when Beltrán played for the Astros.

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